Some of the first things which I learned about practice is that there are two techniques in particular which really help – practising slowly, and repeating things over and over again. Both of these are good news (if a little boring) and we should do a lot of them. In fact, used in the correct way, these techniques are invaluable; but used in the wrong way, repetition can actually send us even further in the wrong direction.
It is imperative that children are taught why they are instructed to follow the numerous guidelines which we give them, so that they have an understanding of what they are doing. Why should pianists played with curved fingers? Why, when ‘the notes are difficult enough thanks’, do I have to use the fingerings which my teacher says I should use? Telling is not teaching. In my experience, it is no more difficult or time-consuming to ask a child a question as a means of provoking them to work out an answer for themselves, than it is simply to give them the answer. The difference is that, with the understanding gained, they are empowered – they can use what they have learned and apply it to new problems. Developing an enquiring mind is vital if our students are to take control of their own learning. At the very least, we need to ensure that they understand why; careless generalisations don’t help, specifics do.
So, why is repeating something over and over again a useful tool in our practice kit? The answer, of course, is that it can help to secure that passage in our memory; our fingers remember the patterns, our ears remember the sounds, and the music becomes more and more familiar to us.
However, we have missed out a vital stage in our explanation; what we haven’t helped our pupil to understand is that before we start this process, we need to have the notes right! Repeating something over and over again doesn’t get it right in itself, it helps to cement in place what we already have right. I do think that some children just hear the first part – repeat – and don’t stop to think about what it is that they are actually doing.
This might also go some way to explaining why repetition is such a fickle friend! When we first encounter a new piece, repetition does indeed help us to become more familiar with it, and initially we can sense that each time we play through we are gaining a little in fluency; this feels good. However, if this is the only practice technique at our disposal, we will soon hit problems; the same mistakes keep cropping up (or even worse, different ones each time!) and no matter how often we repeat the passage, it seems to have stopped getting better. At some point in an apparently seamless process, repetition has ceased to be helpful and is now busy hard-wiring a whole load of problems instead.
Repetition does not fix these problems, so repeating, over and over, a passage which has mistakes in it will actually make it worse. This is an awful realisation, especially when the child genuinely believes that she is doing something which will make it better! And the fact that it does not get better will only reinforce that vicious circle which says ‘It must be me, I’m rubbish, I hate practising.’
The art of practising is complex, and we need to be teaching our children (pupils or offspring!) how to master it. Simply sending them away ‘to practise’ will not do; rather, we need to ensure that they know how to use their time productively so that they can see that it is effective. Taking five minutes to explain why repetition works, and just as importantly, when it doesn’t, might make all the difference in a child’s musical development.